What are winglets in MotoGP?
Winglets on MotoGP bikes represent one of the latest technological innovations in the category in recent years. The improvement in performance has been so evident that all manufacturers are now using them on a massive scale, radically changing the look of MotoGP bikes as we were used to seeing them in previous decades.
Given that MotoGP regulations have determined practically all possible technical variables that can be modified on a bike (number of engine cylinders and its diameter, number of engines to be used, sole supplier of tires with a limit of available units, common electronic control unit and IMU for all…), aerodynamics represents the only variable open enough to be able to research and innovate in this field.
How do motorcycle winglets work?
The word winglet comes from the Formula 1 world to refer to the aerodynamic additions that since 2015 started to proliferate in MotoGP. The most common are on the front and side of the fairing, and their width and the space they can protrude from the front of the bike are limited. The function of this part of the bike is to offer stability when braking and cornerning.
The winglets located on the upper part of the tail cowl are tasked with cleaning the airflow and offering stability when braking. Lately, some manufacturers have incorporated winglets on the tail cowl, with the aim of gaining vertical aerodynamic load on the rear axle.
This season the work on the side channels of the bikes has been significantly developed, which allow the downward thrust of the air to be increased and thus gain aerodynamic load in a turn.
A surprising element was the “spoon”, the device located under the bike, immediately in front of the rear wheel, initially introduced with the idea of helping to regulate the temperature of the rear wheel, although in reality it’s another element that allows vertical aerodynamic load to be achieved, in this case on the swingarm, in search of improved traction.
There are also new aerodynamic elements under the bike, a serious of inferior channels that allow the acceleration of the air under pressure, thus achieving a suction affect.
Other elements have also been implemented to reduce the turbulence generated on the front wheel, covering the front tire up to the maximum allowed by the regulations, with some vertical winglets that allow aerodynamic load to be gained in a turn.
To all these elements, new measurement and control systems must be added, to check the effect of the different elements. One of the most striking are the Pitot tubes, which is normal to see in F1 single-seaters and are also on some bikes. These sensors measure the dynamic pressure and air speed, because actual speed isn’t the same as the air speed, which is what generates aerodynamic load.
When were winglets allowed in MotoGP?
Winglets and aerodynamic development is nothing new, but until a few years ago the right conditions have not been in place to intensify their implementation. When we started to see the first winglets, Shuhei Nakamoto, then director of HRC (Honda Racing Corporation) revealed at the end of the 80s that Honda had started researching in this area. Aerodynamic were achieved that allowed an improvement in lap time by two seconds, but it had two opposite effects: it physically destroyed riders’ forearms, because the bike became much more physical and demanding, and subjected the tires to enormous wear and tear, so the advantages it offered could only be used to a very limited extent in a race.
There’s no point in gaining two seconds on your rivals if the rider ends up running out of steam and unable to keep the pace and you destroy the tires. So Honda decided to investigate in other areas, basically new engines that could make the difference, and as a result of this quest for greater efficiency in the power output and a better traction, HRC developed the Big Bang engine in 1992.
And Nakamoto, with his usual good humor, added another important defect of the new aerodynamics: “It was a horribly ugly bike”, he said. Honda never showed any images of that first prototype, but hearing Nakamoto and seeing how current MotoGP bikes are, we can get an idea.
The mass arrival of aerodynamics was primarily made possible by the notable improvement of the tires, especially because of the notable increase in lateral grip, especially from the second-generation MotoGP bikes, the 800s.
Who introduced winglets into MotoGP?
Although there were initially complaints by some manufacturers when Ducati delved into the development of the new MotoGP aerodynamics in 2015, the Italian manufacturer did nothing more than scrutinize the technical regulations until it reached its limits, initiating a scaling in the technological development of aerodynamics that, for the time being, has no end in sight. The relentless reality of the stopwatch says that, thanks to aerodynamic implementation, MotoGP bikes are increasingly faster and more efficient.
Moreover, any modification to the technical regulations requires the consensus of the manufacturers, all of them members of the MSMA (Motorcycle Sports Manufacturer Association), and if there were discrepancies and they weren’t capable of having a common approach, the Grand Prix Commission would then intervene, the body that governs the MotoGP World Championship, imposing a decision in this field. But there are no changes in the aerodynamic regulations and there won’t be be, in the short term or medium term, because all manufacturers unanimously understand that it is in this field where there is more room for improvement for their bikes.
What are the current regulations for winglets in MotoGP?
In terms of aerodynamics, the MotoGP technical regulations are quite open. When the technological scaling begun back in 2050 they were, and although the aerodynamic implementations that can be carried out have been considerably narrowed down, we are still only at the tip of the iceberg because, as we said at the beginning, there is still a lot of ground to explore. It is inevitable to establish a similarity with Formula 1, where aerodynamics is vitally important, but in this case F1 is 30 years ahead of MotoGP, and many billions of euros in investment.
Aerodynamic work on a motorcycle is not easy. To continue comparing it with an F1 car to understand it better, a car practically offers the same wind profile in a straight line as in a turn, the center of gravity is always at the same point, and it is dynamically more stable than a motorcycle. The bike inclines on tuns, its center of mass raises and lowers and that alters its center of gravity, not to mention the influence the size of the rider on it has or their riding style, if they lower their body more or less, for example All of that has a large influence from the aerodynamic point of view.
In F1, manufacturers work with similar models, with the rider’s helmet the only exception, whose construction or shape may alter the aerodynamics in two matching cars. In MotoGP, manufacturers work with complete 3D models of each rider, because it isn’t the same the aerodynamics that, for example, Aprilia carries out for Aleix Espargaró, one of the tallest riders in the category, as that of his teammate Maverick Viñales, who is much more smaller. Just like they also influence the g-force effects that MotoGP riders have to withstand, unlike in F1 where car and rider form a whole. It is an issue that applies to all manufacturers, and the regulations allow for one aerodynamic set upgrade per driver during the season.
Controversies and current limitations of MotoGP winglets
The increased weight of aerodynamics in the technical evolution of MotoGP is a reality against which one cannot go. Many riders complained about the difficulties they have to overtake, although as we have seen repeatedly during the first races of the season, they themselves have taken it upon themselves to disprove themselves with some spectacular and combative moments.
It is also true that fans may miss more attractive designs on bikes, but all of this is part of the course of evolution, an evolution dictated by the manufacturers themselves.